Bio-engineering Techniques for

Slope Stabilization and Control

of Sediment Generation

Detailing; Hand & Mechanical Site

Preparation and Planting methods.

Kay & Associates, International Training Consultants

Index: Overview

  1. Willow and other plants that sprout from cuttings.
        1. Full bench.

b) Random Bench.

  1. Live Pole Drains.
  2. Conifers.
  3. Other slope stabilization species.
  4. Grass seed and fertilizer.
  1. Project timing.
  2. Existing vegetation.
  3. Naturally re-vegetating species.
  4. Site Maintenance and Monitoring.
  5. Site Biodiversity.
  6. Hand Tools and Materials.
  7. Worker Safety.


Bio-engineering is the successful use of vegetation in concert with engineering structures to increase slope stability against shallow mass wasting.

Plant material increases soil strength through the transfer of root tensile strength to soil shear strength, buttressing and arching. Bio-engineering systems provide additional support beyond that which can be provided by single plants. As the plants mature they increase in strength and provide increased resistance to natural forces.

The following bio-engineering solutions uses native plant species to;

Stabilization of the surface layers of the slopes from wind, gravitational, and hydraulic forces is achieved with the benefit of energy dissipation of water and detritus moving down-slope. Infiltration of water increases the amount of water for plant establishment while vigorous plant growth dissipates excess slope water to the atmosphere. Entrapment of sediment is accomplished through filtering action of established vegetation and a developing duff layer.

Natural vegetation establishment is enhanced by providing suitable microsites for plants by;

Seeds from natural dispersal tend to remain in place and seedlings have a chance to develop in the stabilized surface areas. The temporary vegetation from the Bio-engineering treatments acts as pioneering species, allowing time for natural succession to form a more permanent vegetation cover.

(1) Willow Whips and other plants that sprout from cuttings.


Willow whips are expected to be cut (make clean cuts with unsplit ends) locally by local labour in the dormant season. (from when the leaves start to turn yellow in the autumn until growth starts in the spring) These willow whips will be approximately 2 meters long and selectively harvested from convenient sites without damage or harm to the natural environment. The whips will be placed in bundles and wrapped in medium weight polyethelyne (leave ends open) and tied with cord. (the poly is to protect the stems during handling and to retain moisture, do not leave out in the sun. Place in the shade) These willow whips will be kept in cold storage until time for use. It may be advantageous to take the time at the harvesting stage to prepare the required lineal meters of wattle bundles. (see: contour-wattling for instructions in making the wattle bundles)


It is important to remember that in each cutting that you are handling a live plant. Handle gently, and don't damage or bruise the stems.

In the harvesting and planting phases, do not let the cuttings dry out. Do not leave them out in the sun or spread out on a windy slope. (keep covered or in the shade)

Keep all planting stock moist, cool and covered when in; storage, transport and on the jobsite when planting.

Planting of Cuttings

Different methods for planting of the willow whips may be utilized.

    1. The Live Staking (upright planting) method is commonly employed on slopes requiring remediation work for slope stability and in conjunction with the methods described below.
    2. Contour-wattling is commonly used to reduce the amount of slope angle and for sediment control in fine textured and sandy soils adjacent to watercourses.
    3. Brush Layering (horizontal planting), Full bench is also used to reduce the amount of slope angle and provide continuos reinforced bench support.
    4. The Brush Layering (horizontal planting), Random Bench method is selectively employed in dry raveling sites to establish "islands" of vegetation and to ensure the planted stems maintain moisture in the dry period of the year and to provide protection from raveling material until the plant is established.



  1. Live Staking (Upright Planting)


The willow whips are usually cut into 500mm lengths for planting vertically in the ground.


Planting spacing on most slopes will be from 200mm to One meter apart. The worker will be instructed by the Bio-engineering supervisor in what to look for in ideal planting sites to get the best plant survival and growth.


The willow whip (if strong enough and the soil is loose) may be pushed or driven into the ground. Otherwise a suitably deep hole may be made in the ground using a metal bar or other suitable method (see tools). Approx. 2/3rd's of the whip should be below ground and there should be two buds visible on the exposed 1/3rd above the ground. The cutting should make contact with the bottom of the hole (no air space). Compact the dirt around the stem.

(b) Contour-wattling (for slope stabilization and also to provide sediment control in fine textured and sandy soils adjacent to watercourses)

Contour-wattling is the placing of bundles of twigs in a prepared trench and burying them across the slope at regular contour intervals resulting a lightly terraced slope. All work starts at the base of the slope.

Wattles construction

Wattles are constructed by the laying of willow whips in alternate directions to form a bundle 200 to 300mm in diameter.

The bundles are compressed tightly and firmly tied with binder twine every 300 to 400mm. (do not allow bundles to dry out)


An excavated trench (approx. ½ the depth of the bundle is excavated along the contour of the slope. Note: trenches must kept horizontal to prevent the mis-directing of surface water. (use an inclinometer) Trenching should not precede the placing of the wattles by more than 1hr to minimize the drying out of the soil.

Placing, Staking and Covering of the Wattles

The bundles of wattles are laid in the trench allowing the fringe ends to overlap.

Stakes (minimum 600mm length) are driven through the bundles (beside the tie string) approximately every 500mm. The purpose to the stakes is to retain the bundle in place (particularly from frost heaving) until the roots can take over.

The bundles are partially backfilled using native upslope material. The soil should be worked around and into the bundle itself. Workers should walk on the backfilled material and also on the bundles as much as possible to help work the soil into the bundles and to provide compaction of the backfill material. The excavated material from the next trench provides this backfill material. The backfilled portion must be outsloped as not to retain or pond water. A side portion of the bundle forming the terrace "wall" will always be left exposed for propagation. The finished slope will have a series of out-sloped terraces with the wattle bundles just poking out at the face of each terrace.

Alternate Wattling Method

In moist soils, the driving in of long (minimum 1meter) stakes (Steel or Wood) along the desired terrace line (150-200mm apart, depending on the size of the longitudinal whips used) with 150-200mm left exposed. Then long whips of Willow are placed against this "fence" and then backfilled with native material, creating a bench face with the exposed wattling. This procedure is continued up the slope.

  1. Brush Layering (Horizontal Planting), Full Continuos Bench

Useful for slopes that are over-steepened that will benefit from reduced slope angle.

It is also beneficial if there is an opportunity for mechanical assistance of slope preparation. You may wish to consider the use of a small mini-excavator or a "spider" excavator. These smaller, lighter machines can be flown in by Helicopter to sites not accessible by road. The "Spider" excavator, waking on it's four feet, also has the ability to traverse slopes of up to 100% to gain site access with surprisingly negligible ground disturbance.

Bench Construction.

A flat bench will be excavated with mechanical equipment or by hand work using mattock and shovel, at the base of the slope. This bench will be the full length of the slope and usually 1 to 2 meters in depth. The willow whips will be placed side by side (about 100mm apart) on this bench with the tops facing outward and with a 150mm overhang.

Slope material (native material, dirt, stones etc) will be excavated down from the slope on to the top of the previously prepared bench with its side by side placed willow whips. The depth (ranging from 200mm to 2meter) of this covering material (and the next bench) will vary with the slope angle and slope materials.

Length of Whips.

Whips will be 1 to 2 meters long and laid horizontally on the constructed bench and backfilled (covered over to a depth of 200mm to 2meters) in the terracing process. (There must be a minimum of 150mm of the willow whip freely protruding to establish new growth)

Size and spacing of Benches.

These benches, running the full length of the slope, consisting of one single layer of Willow whips are constructed to the top of the slope. The bench height will vary due to site conditions but is usually in a range of 200mm to 2 meters.

(e) Brush Layering (Horizontal Planting), Random Bench (for dry raveling slopes)

For slopes subject to raveling, a random spacing of short benches may be employed. The object is to create "islands" of Vegetation on the slope.

Length of Whips.

Whips will be 1 to 2 meters long and laid horizontally on a constructed bench and backfilled (covered over) in the terracing process. On some slopes, due to the nature of the ground material it will not be possible to use the full length of the willow whips.

Size and Spacing of Benches.

These benches, 1 to 2 meters in width, consisting of one single layer of Willow whips will be interspaced, in a staggered fashion, on the slope approximately every 3 to 4 meters in suitable random locations.

Bench Construction.

A flat bench will be excavated by hand with a mattock at the desired location on the slope. (The "Spider" excavator may be a useful tool on some slopes) This bench will be approximately 1 to 2 meters in width and 1 to 2 meters in depth. The willow whips will be placed side by side (about 100mm apart) on this bench with the tops facing outward.

Native slope material (dirt, raveled stones etc) will be excavated down from the slope on top of the previously prepared bench and the side by side placed willow whips. The depth (approximately 200 to 500+mm) of this covering material will vary with the slope angle and slope materials. There must be a minimum of 150mm of the willow whip freely protruding to establish new growth.

(If fairly large boulders are readily available and can be moved by hand they can be placed on the bench created to assist in providing physical protection)

( 2 ) Live Pole Drains

Water piping or seeping out of a bank creates problems that can lead to slope instability. The use of a "Live Pole Drain" system can control and direct this potentially problem water.

Starting at the water source location, excavate a small (2-300mm) trench to the desired discharge location. Take a pre-prepared bundle of Willow whips (3-400mm in Diameter) and place this bundle in the trench and then place others continuously end to end to the drain point. Backfill the trench, just leaving the top surface of the bundle of whips exposed. Ensure the discharge location is well armoured to receive water flow.

This drainage system will convey a considerable amount of water with the added benefit of being a "living drain" with live willows growing out of it and dispensing water to the atmosphere. These drains can be used in many different ways. Eg. In a "Y" formation.

( 3 ) Conifers

It is an integral part of most Forestry bio-engineering prescriptions that Conifers be planted on the slopes. Conifers have the great ability to use water to dry the slope and its root systems will enhance the slope integrity and assist to achieve long term stability.

Conifer species should be native to the area, suited to the site conditions and suited to the site altitude.

( 4 ) Other Slope Stabilization Species

There may be other suitable species that propagate from cuttings that are available for the remediation site. In the American Pacific Northwest, the Black Cottonwood will grow profusely from cuttings.

Planting species that have performed well in this region that are available in rooted stock are: Red Ozier Dogwood, Alder, Sumac among others.

( 5 ) Grass seed and fertilizer.

Dry grass seed and fertilizer should be applied, using a broadcast spreader, the same day that the ground is disturbed, while the ground is friable (loose and open) to be most effective. This method can be used effectively even on quite steep slopes. However, after the ground has been armoured and compacted by sun and rain the seed and fertilizer has a tendency to roll down the slope and for the wind to blow the seed away.

The use of dry seeding in friable ground can be very cost effective and with good results. By the seed being retained (trapped) in the ground the seeding can be effectively done even when dry conditions can be expected after seeding as the seed remains in place until moisture conditions are right for seed propagation.

Is the application of seed using a water slurry(containing the seed and fertilizer) combined with a mulch agent(to retain moisture and also physical protection from rain damage) and a tackifier(to make the mixture stick). There are many combinations of mix and a variety of specific materials and agents to use in site-specific locations.

It is recommended that you consult an expert in hydro-seeding to get;

Timing of the application will need to be considered (Eg. weather seasons)

Always, a custom grass seed mixture, specific for the site and the season of application is strongly recommended, along with a recommended fertilizer mix, specific to the site soils. (you may need soil tests) There will also need to be specified application rates for both the seed and fertilizer. (The grass seed supplier may be able to assist and may have local knowledge of the area)

The addition of native species to the seed mix is gaining strong acceptance. There is an increasing availability of native species from the seed suppliers. Also shrub and tree seed may be considered to add to the mixture. Eg. Alder should be considered if the work commences after natural Alder seeding for the year has taken place.

In any seed application it is essential to ensure that specified application rates are being actually applied and specified products are being used.

The only sure way to confirm is to place random test cards(150mm square and for dry seeding, coated with a sticky substance) on the site prior to seeding and then sent to a laboratory for a painstaking seed count.

For realistic on-site supervision you may;

    1. Monitor the quantities (and types) of materials brought on site and calculate the ratio of the application area to product and compare to specifications.
    2. Closely inspect the ground for consistent application rates.
    3. Conduct your own seed estimation using the seeds of visible size and the fertilizer pellets in random locations as a guide. (a rough rule of thumb for dry seeding (average) applications is two large seeds and two fertilizer pellets(on the average) in a square inch.
    4. Ensure that the seed has been transported and stored correctly and the seed is not water damaged or contaminated by another spilled product. Eg. Petroleum products or other harmful agents.

Caution: The specifications for the area to be treated if taken directly from a map or aerial photo will not equal the actual ground distances on a slope and will lead to a shortage of materials for the actual ground area required to be treated.

( 6 ) Project Timing

Harvesting of cuttings (Willow Whips) will usually take place in the dormant season. (no leaves on the stem)

Bio-engineering field work will take place after machine work of buttressing for slope stability in the immediate area is completed. (the machine construction of reinforcing walls at the base of the slopes. Eg. The placing of large boulders to height of 2meters)

Ideally, the bio-engineering field work should commence in the spring. Consideration will want to be given to such limiting factors as;

Planting (live staking and grass hydro-seeding) should be limited to seasons in which adequate moisture is expected to be available for propagation. Eg. Early spring or Fall.

( 7 ) Existing Vegetation

The existing natural vegetation should not to be destroyed or damaged in the processes of completing the prescription. Where there is existing vegetation, it is expected that (where practical) it will be incorporated into the remedial work plan.

( 8 ) Naturally re-vegetating species

It is expected that wind born and animal transported seeds from adjacent vegetation (including fruit bearing shrubs) will establish themselves in the stabilized soil with the assistance of the emerging vegetation.

( 9 ) Maintenance

Scheduled on-going Monitoring is required to;

( 10 ) Biodiversity

A well rounded prescription addresses the key elements to maintain plant bio-diversity and wildlife concerns.

( 11 ) Hand Tools and Materials:


( 12 ) Worker Safety

A short (1/2 day) orientation course "Safety on Steep Slopes" should be presented to all workers and supervisors prior to Bio-engineering work commencement. This will encompass;

All new workers to the site are to have taken this course before being allowed to work on the slopes. No person is to work alone. Use the "buddy system".

Also a written;

(a) Safety plan

(b) Emergency evacuation plan

are to be in place prior to work commencing.


For additional training also see: Bio-engineering course offered by Kay & Associates.



Biotechnical Slope Protection and Erosion - Control Gray/Lessier - 1989

Caminos Rurales Con Impactos Minimos - Keller/Bauer/Aldana - 1995

Forest Road Engineering guidebook - BC Ministry of forests - 1995

A Guide for Management of Landslide Prone Terrain in the Pacific Northwest Land Management Handbook # 18 BC Ministry of Forests - Chatwin/Howe/Schwab/Swanson - Revised 1991


Eric L Kay, Forest Road Consultant



Tel/fax 250 337-5096

Kay and Associates, International Training Consultants.

8712 Island Highway, Black Creek, BC. Canada V9J 1K5

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